Holly Kelchner has a tattoo on her foot that ties together her passions and her approaches to life.
The tattoo of a microscopic plankton speaks to her work with the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research, her research in Alaska and along the African coast, and just how she carries herself in general.
“Plankton comes from the Greek root planktos, which means to wander or to drift,” said Kelchner, who is an aquatic ecology research analyst with CIGLR. “I feel like that’s who I embody as a person. I wander and drift through wherever I’m supposed to go.”
The water is an ideal place to drift, and Kelchner’s life and career have been defined by what’s on the surface and what’s below.
She grew up in Minnesota, and her family owned a cottage on the Outer Banks in North Carolina. Frequently visiting a place kissed by the Atlantic Ocean air left a lasting impression.
“From a very young age, I was going out to visit the ocean, and living in a house that looks out on the ocean and falling asleep to the ocean,” she said. “That was the center of my childhood.”
She lists scuba diving among her many passions. Her father was a scuba diver before being injured shortly after Kelchner was born, and he shared stories of his scuba diving adventures to kindle a spark in her.
When she turned 20, she received her certification in the same lake where her father earned his. Around that same time, she moved to Alaska to study marine biology at the University of Alaska Southeast and took some memorable scuba dives while there.
“People thought I was crazy because I loved it. It’s cold diving,” she said. “To this day, I think those dives in Alaska were some of my best dives, even compared to warm coral reefs in other places of the world simply because of the vibrant color seen in all the invertebrates.
“I didn’t get certified in nice tropical weather where most people get certified. I did it in a cold lake in Minnesota where the visibility made it difficult to see your hand when right in front of you. Then I moved to Alaska to dive with sea lions and all those invertebrates in the cold water.”
Kelchner received her dry suit and open-water certification in Minnesota then earned her advanced certification while in Belize. She received her rescue-diver certification while studying toxins made by phytoplankton in Mozambique on the southeast African coast.
She was pursuing her master’s degree at Louisiana State University at the time. Her graduate adviser left for Michigan after accepting a position with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration through the Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab and helped Kelchner obtain a volunteer position with GLERL.
Much of the allure of leaving Louisiana for Michigan was the pull of the Great Lakes.
“When I was in Mozambique, I was on the water every day,” she said. “When I came back to Louisiana, I missed it so much. That was the key driver of me wanting to come to Michigan — to get on boats and actually work out on the water. That’s where I feel most at home.”
Kelchner actually wants to make the water her home someday. She recently took up sailing and envisions it becoming a long-term pursuit. She worked last summer with the North Cape Yacht Club on western Lake Erie and was hooked.
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“I love being on the water,” she said. “There’s an entirely different time scale of how things happen when you’re out on the water. You’re more aware of your senses, you’re looking at where the wind is coming from, how strong it is and how that’s going to impact the water. You’re looking at all these different things to manage your balance on the surface of the water.”
Kelchner said her sailing interest was piqued while in Louisiana when a member of her graduate committee told her she lived in South Africa and sailed over to Louisiana. When Kelchner tried her hand at it last summer, her instructors called her a natural.
She said she would love someday to sail the Mediterranean Sea and experience the culture and history of the region. But for now, closer to home, she said she plans to be on Lake Erie as much as possible this summer and eventually obtain a boat of her own.
“When I came up to Michigan, everyone was telling me, ‘The Great Lakes are a great place to learn to sail,’” she said. “I foresee myself turning that into a lifestyle. I want to make a boat my home. My partner has claimed the title of first mate, I’ll be the captain, and we’ll go sailing around the world and see it from our home.”